Intimacy as Freedom in a Complex World
Studies in Family and Intimate Life
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover. xii+219 p. ISBN 978-0230272521. £65
Reviewed by Guillaume Marche
Université Paris-Est Créteil
Everyday Friendships is the latest book by Harry Blatterer, an Australian sociologist whose work focuses on privacy and individuality. His earlier publications include Coming of Age in Times of Uncertainty (2007) and Modern Privacy : Shifting Boundaries, New Forms (2010, co-edited with Maria Markus and Pauline Johnson). Rather than charting the merits and pitfalls of friendship as a form of personal self-discovery and as an individual’s path to personal autonomy, Blatterer here seeks to approach friendship neither simply from an individual, nor collective angle, but as an interpersonal dyad that “is a significant social relationship and deserves renewed sociological attention” . The book’s substantive thesis is that friendship is a pathway to individual freedom because, unlike other dyadic relationships like love, it lacks normative structuring. The theoretical implications are numerous, having to do with the need to resolve the tension between the notion that our individual lives are entirely determined by social structure and the equally illusory view that our personal life-choices can reasonably be conceived of in a social vacuum.
The book begins with a historicising chapter. The birth of modern friendship is often situated in the early-industrial, pre-Romantic time of the Scottish Enlightenment, when Adam Smith is usually credited with conceptualising modern friendship as one of those manifestations of self-interest that are conducive to social harmony and hence to economic progress and political stability. According to Blatterer, Smith’s was indeed a rational, contractual, strategic conception of friendship that is at odds with the intimacy involved in what is understood today as friendship. Although in lack of a strict definition, our contemporaries have a clear sense that friendship is not primarily driven by interest, but by authenticity. Thus, Blatterer argues, its birth owes to Romantic anti-Enlightenment idealism; combined with Romanticism’s lack of self-identification with social statuses, the individualisation that arose with modernity allowed the formation of intimacy. Blatterer thus contrasts Smith’s rational conception of friendship with Hegel’s notion that intimate relations are ethical insofar as they are irreducible to contractual norms. Thus, since the Romantic age, the self has emerged in modern, western thought as the result of relational interactions: friendship, for Blatterer, is a prime example of how personal freedom is inseparable from social interdependence.
Blatterer then goes on to situate his approach in the sociological literature on interpersonal relations: unsurprisingly, his theoretical positioning is indebted to symbolic interactionism, especially Herbert Blumer’s notion of “sensitising concepts” which “rather than ‘provid[ing] prescriptions of what to see…merely suggest directions in which to look’ ” . Thus, Blatterer enhances friendship’s conceptual vagueness, a valuable sign that, unlike love in particular, this social relationship is not quite institutionalised. Drawing mainly from Max Weber and Georg Simmel, he argues that the friendship dyad is in a theoretical blind spot, since it is often not even perceived as a full-fledged social entity, but rather—mistakenly—as a somewhat immediate interpersonal relationship, unlike marriage, for example, which is rooted in intimacy, but whose meaning is commonly understood as looming above and beyond the mere spousal dyad. Hence friendship’s theoretical ambiguity: it combines, on the one hand, individuality and differentiation (the separation of different domains of social activity in modern societies, a factor of individual autonomy) with, on the other hand, social positioning and dependence on social structures. One of Blatterer’s major claims is indeed that the norm to which friendship is the most strongly connected is the male–female binary. Additionally, because it is a loose concept, friendship is often appropriated linguistically in misleading ways: in the information age of social media, in particular, “friend” has acquired a much broader, hence weaker meaning than “friendship”. That is why Blatterer chooses a narrow focus on intimate friendships (versus friendly relations)—i.e. one-on-one, sustained interpersonal relations that are to be differentiated from comradeships (whose goals are external to the relationship), collegial relationships (which can be private, but not intimate), and acquaintanceships (which rely on a tacit mutual understanding of their limitation).
Heeding his own call for conceptual preciseness, Blatterer then devotes a whole chapter to how intimate friendship differs from love, the latter being more institutionalised and hence less of a source of individual freedom. As Blatterer insists, “friendship’s institutional deficit is the condition for its relational freedom” . Based on a broad review of how sociological literature approaches institutions, Blatterer argues that our interpersonal relationships are embedded in a set of “what Emile Durkheim called ‘social representations’ that are constantly distributed, circulated, reiterated, and challenged in popular culture” . Thus, however multifaceted, unstable and constantly negotiated, normative infrastructures are inseparable from our individual experience. Love, in particular, was gradually institutionalised in the nineteenth century as a key dimension of marriage, whereas rationalised friendship enjoyed much greater legitimacy in the Enlightenment, due to the disruption that was considered to result from passionate love. Paradoxically, love received more institutional attention than friendship because it was more unpredictable, unstable and problematic, which enabled its connection with such varied, convergent late-capitalist institutions as the consumer culture and the therapeutic culture. By contrast, Blatterer claims, friendship’s freedom comes from its privatisation and its removal from such pivotal institutions. In a particularly explicit framing of his central contention, Blatterer writes: “[Axel Honneth] doesn’t perceive the instrumentalising drift evident in Smith, that is, Smith’s historically situated inability to conceptualise intimacy in the modern sense. Modifying Honneth’s thesis, then, I suggest that friendship’s freedom is possible not despite, but precisely because, it ‘possesses the least degree of institutional anchorage’ ” .
In order to further explore the implications of freedom in friendship, Blatterer then shows that “[f]riendship’s relational freedom fosters spontaneity and creativity, and is in this sense generative” [95-96]. It is friendship’s “structural location between the private and the public spheres”  that enables individuals to negotiate a balance between their social and intimate selves. Blatterer thus invokes Norbert Elias and George Herbert Mead to insists that the individual is ontologically social, so that the Self is not merely “socially constructed”, but it is indeed fundamentally relational. Consequently, friendship is creative and holds transformational potentialities for the individual because there is another subject with whom we interact. And freedom to construct the friendship is all the greater for the lack of cultural prescriptions about this type of relationship. Friends thus depend on each other for the nonjudgmental, disinterested recognition of their individual uniqueness. Rather than functionalist view of homophily (the notion that like attracts like) as a prerequisite in friendship, Blatterer insists that friends’ sameness is a construct, an outcome of their mutual perception, interpretation and creation of each other. Complementing Hegel’s oft-quoted statement that friendship is about “being oneself in another”, Blatterer thus argues that it makes it possible “for each to flourish in that relationship” . Here again, friendship differs from love: contrary to the widely held view that intimacy is increasingly about self-disclosure, Blatterer concludes from a broad review of empirical studies, there is no concrete evidence that disclosure is becoming more central in friendship. Rather than a condition of intimacy, he argues, disclosure is a consequence of certain forms of intimacy, especially love. But in friendship, feelings trump the normative injunction to disclosure that is prevalent in therapy culture, and mutual affection, caring and protection are the prime vectors of intimacy and privacy. Thus, “a central role of friendship [is that] it provides friends with a break from public convention”  and instead allows them to break free from the rules of public propriety and forge a private morality of their own.
Yet, fundamental to friendship’s uniqueness is that, unlike love’s intrinsic self-referentiality, it needs “the stimulus of common interests, of conversations about what’s going on ‘out there’ in the world, rather than ‘in here’ in the relationship” . In fact, drawing from Axel Honneth, Blatterer is quick to caution that the fundamental freedom of friendship is not boundless, because friendship is not socially disembedded. One institution to which friendship is strongly connected is indeed heterosexuality—which tells us as much about heterosexuality’s normative strength as about friendship’s general institutional deficit. Correlatively, Blatterer argues, the persistence of gender-based barriers in the freest of social relations is indicative of a lot about the prevalence of the gender order in our society, whereby the symbolic order guarantees its effectiveness by posing as natural. For, as expounded by lesbian feminist theorists like Adrienne Rich and Monique Wittig, heteronormativity connects the institution of heterosexuality to other institutions by way of cultural assumptions, so that the gender order is in fact inseparable from heteronormativity. This is exemplified in the “love–friendship paradox”—i.e. while gendered heterosociability is normative in love, homosociability is normative in friendship. For example, the gender and heterosexual orders’ interdependence is visible in the way heterosexual male friends use homophobic stereotyping in order to deflect assumptions of homoerotic attraction that might result from the fact that intimacy is often interpreted as being sexual.
Cross-sex friendships however do exist and, in the absence of cultural scripts for them and in the presence of obstacles to non-love-based intimacy between man and woman, it is necessary to invent strategies to put friendship’s platonic quality beyond doubt—for example including one friend’s spouse in the relationship (“triangulating”). Despite the persistence of structural obstacles, there is greater acceptance of cross-sex friendships, a “testament to individuals’ capacities to negotiate public convention” and a sign that “[c]ulture orients but doesn’t determine practices, behaviors and attitudes” . On the contrary, the need to label, justify, and make cultural sense of, the so-called “bromance” phenomenon, far from attesting to a lessening of heteronormativity in fact affirms it. Finally, heterosocial (cross-sex) friendships are asymmetrical: without essentialising “male” and “female” modes of intimacy, one must acknowledge the differential gendered distribution of possibilities of intimacy. Thus, empirical data suggest that men hold their female friends to more demanding standards than their male friends, a sign that men’s heterosocial friendships are less free than their homosocial ones, such that the emotional imbalance in cross-sex friendships tends to serve men. As to the irruption of sexual attraction in cross-sex friendships, according to Blatterer, it is unevenly interpreted by men and women—valued by the former, viewed with suspicion by the latter: the absence of cultural scripts for sex other than love or strictly sexual relationships therefore shows that sexual intimacy and intimate friendship as it is culturally scripted are incompatible. Conversely, “friends with benefits” relations (erotic friendships) do attest to the possibility of historical structural change—as the need to label them shows—yet, they are fundamentally geared to a strategic end, rather than intimacy, and do not fall within the strict scope of intimate friendships. Similar observations apply to intersectional cross-sex friendships (e.g. straight woman–gay man): “the absence of a script specific to these friendships leaves a void that is frequently filled by heteronormative scripts” —i.e. intimacy gets interpreted as romance (straight men thinking they can turn their lesbian friends straight) and strictly non-romantic relationships get derided (gay men and “fag hags”). All these remarks, Blatterer concludes, confirm that dyads are social and that intimacy is indeed political.
Aside from the very ambition to examine the private experience of friendship and intimacy as worthy of sociological enquiry, one of this book’s many merits is its use of a broad variety of sources beyond the standard terrain of sociological theory—ranging from linguistic and philosophical scholarship to literary texts and television series. Blatterer’s broad-encompassing sociological and historical literature review on friendship also includes the somewhat forgotten work of Siegfried Kracauer along with canonical sources, such as Adam Smith or Hegel, that are thoroughly revisited. Scholars and students with an interest in foreign languages and cultures will be sensitive to the author’s attentiveness to Anglo-American specificities, which he compares for example to the German-speaking academic literature as well as to usage in the German language. The book thus self-consciously tests the disciplinary limits of sociology  and at the same time provides useful insights on important, recurrent methodological issues such as how to handle respondents’ use of a concept—by adhering to the vernacular, or by confronting it to, possibly pitting it against, the scholarly? Blatterer recommends caution with respondents’ use as the loosening of concepts may lead to misleading confusions—e.g. between intimate friendships and friendly relations.
Readers may find that the relative dearth of straightforward examples—especially in the first three chapters—makes it feel as if the author is going to great lengths in order to state the obvious. For example, it is argued at the end of chapter 5 that the strength of the gender binary plays a crucial role in our “presumptive prioritisation” processes [142-143], when only a few pages before [135-136] the analysis of a beer ad says it all in a few enlightening lines. Besides, the author’s conceptual cautiousness sometimes verges on a somewhat normative view of love, for example when he writes: “In friendship the friends set the terms of [affective] communication; in love these are prescribed and so ‘individualised’ only to the extent that the lovers may deviate from extant societal models” . The “deviance” caveat is so minimal that these lines seem to disregard the myriad ways in which love is being reconfigured in people’s everyday practices, despite the undeniable existence of norms institutionalising it. Yet, the issue is addressed when Blatterer claims that “loving couples who decide to opt out of the nexus capitalism–romance–therapy go against a deep cultural grain”  or that “todisavow [the possibility that lovers might be friends] is to repudiate people’s capacities to make sense of their relationship through the available cultural vocabulary, and to make sense of it creatively” . The author is indeed walking a very fine line between claiming that “[r]elationships that question the authority of the [normative] scheme simply by virtue of their existence are nevertheless subject to its reality as a cultural heuristic”  and that “human creativity and learning are not simply stymied by limits, but . . . the limits themselves can constitute the stuff from which creative action is made” . Yet, this dialectic of agency and social constraint is at the core of sociological research and it is to Blatterer’s credit not to opt for a one-sided view of the matter. A further, mainly stylistic qualm is that the book is sometimes a bit repetitive and overly expository regarding the fact that friendship is not institutionalised through the market and therapy culture, and that its institutional deficit is its strength when it comes to freedom. The argument verges on the tautological when it is, in essence, argued that (a) friendship is not institutionalised, hence free, and that (b) friendship’s relational freedom resists prescription. It is understandable that the book’s main argumentative line be reiterated, so that in fact each chapter could almost read separately—yet, this feels a bit tedious to those who do read the book as a whole.
These minor reservations notwithstanding, Harry Blatterer’s Everyday Friendships offers an ambitious, eye-opening conceptualisation of dyads, intimacy, and friendship as critical social issues. Scholars with an interest in the threshold between the private and public spheres, in the agency–social determination dialectic, and in how social agents negotiate their everyday experiences in a web of cultural normative constraints will find this a most stimulating book to read. Its encompassing theoretical discussion will provide fruitful insights for future empirically-based research on friendship.
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